While calorie counting isn't for everyone, depending on your health or fitness goal, you may want to do the math before building your daily menu.

By Mike Roussell and Karen Ansel, R.D.
Updated July 12, 2019
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You try to eat right, but the number on the scale keeps creeping up. Sound familiar? According to a survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, Americans eat a lot more than they should. Of 1,000 people polled—about half of them women—43 percent couldn't even guess the answer to the questions: “How many calories am I eating?” or “How many calories should I be eating?”

"So many women are eating on the run," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan. (See: What Is the Volumetrics Diet Plan and How Does It Work?) Many people are not paying attention to supersized portions in restaurants, and then left wondering 'how many calories am I eating?'

The happy news is that your diet doesn't require a complete overhaul. Instead of counting foods out, just get to know how many calories you need to eat in a day. (Related: What's Better for Weight Loss: Diet or Exercise?)

Read on for more indispensable stay-slim solutions and the definitive answer to how many calories am I eating?

How Many Calories Do You Need?

  1. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the amount of energy your body burns doing such basic functions as breathing and circulating blood.
  • If you're under age 30: (0.0621 x your weight/2.2 + 2.0357) x 240 = BMR
  • If you're over age 30: (0.0342 x your weight/2.2 + 3.5377) x 240 = BMR

2. Figure out your activity level.

  • You rarely exercise: 1.3
  • You get some exercise every day, but it's generally light, such as walking or playing golf: 1.5
  • You do high-intensity workouts such as spinning, playing tennis, and skiing almost every day: 1.7

3. Multiply your activity level by your BMR. The total is your daily calorie requirement. To maintain your weight, stick as closely as you can to that number.

4 Personal Factors That Impact Your Caloric Needs

Determining “how many calories am I eating?” and balancing that out with how much you're burning through exercise is more an art than a science when you’re on a quest to lose LBs. There are many variables that can impact the calories in vs. calories out equation, including:

  1. The type of exercise you are doing. Resistance and interval training will burn more calories after you stop exercising compared to traditional aerobic training. (Related: How Many Calories Does Swimming Burn?)
  2. The type of diet you are eating. High-protein diets burn more calories, as protein takes more effort for your body to digest and metabolize.
  3. How much weight you have to lose. For simplicity's sake, you use your total body weight to calculate your BMR instead of your lean body mass (which is your total body weight minus your body fat). Because of this assumption, if you need to lose 25 pounds or more to reach your goal weight, then your total caloric needs, which we calculated above, is probably too high. This is because we treated the calorie needs of body fat the same as lean tissue (muscles, bones, and organs), but in reality, your body fat has a much lower caloric need (close to zero). Learn how to adjust for this below.
  4. Your individual metabolism. Any equation that estimates your calorie needs is just that: an estimate. They’re all based on averages, and just like mama said, you’re not average. Don't take the numbers you generate after reading this article as gospel, but use them as a starting point to determine how many calories am I eating—and should I be eating? put them to the test, and adjust from there. (Related: 8 Ways to Rev Up Your Metabolism)

Most importantly, keep in mind that the scale isn't everything. One of the best ways to make a health transformation last is to value non-scale victories too. Are your healthy new habits giving you more energy or better digestion? Are you sleeping more soundly? Do your clothes fit better and do you feel more confident? These perks will help motivate you to continue eating well and staying active for the long run, which means you won't just lose weight, but you'll also keep it off.

The Only 3 Diet Rules You Need to Know

1. Eat More...

  • Fruits and vegetables: Produce is naturally low in calories and high in water and fiber, so it fills you up.
  • Low-fat dairy: Research shows that the calcium in skim milk, cheese, and yogurt may help your body burn fat.
  • Whole grains: They're rich in fiber and more filling than refined grains. Try oatmeal or whole-grain bread with at least two grams fiber per slice.
  • Lean protein: It's slowly digested, so it stays in your stomach longer. Good choices: Pork tenderloin, broiled Pacific halibut, skinless chicken, and deli turkey breast.
  • Salads and broth-based soups: Start your meals with a high-volume, low-calorie food like vegetable soup and you'll eat less overall. (Psst...these five recipe hacks will change the way you make soup!)
  • Beans and legumes: Toss some black beans or chickpeas into your salad at lunch. They boast a unique combination of fiber to fill you up and protein to keep you satisfied.

2. Eat less...

  • Sweetened cereals and yogurt: The typical 6-ounce container of yogurt with fruit on the bottom packs more than two tablespoons of sugar—more than 100 calories.
  • White carbs such as bread, pasta, and rice: They contain empty calories and little fiber.
  • "Fake foods" like rice cakes: They're so lacking in taste that you end up overeating them because you never feel satisfied. (Related: 6 Ultra-Processed Foods You Probably Have In Your House Right Now)
  • Salty or fried snacks: Not only are they loaded with heart-clogging saturated fat, these foods also invite mindless munching.

3. Eat a Lot Less Often...

  • Sweetened drinks such as soda and iced tea: Drinking just one can of soda a day equals about 150 calories—and 15 extra pounds a year. (Try this healthy carbonated drink to break your soda habit.)
  • Bagels, muffins, cakes, and cookies: The average deli bagel is so enormous that it counts as four servings of bread.
  • Calorie-laden condiments: Butter and mayo contain more than 100 calories per tablespoon. Switch to light mayo (or use mustard instead) and use these spreads sparingly.

Learn How Many Calories Are In Your Favorite Snacks

100 calories:

  • 18 roasted peanuts
  • 4 Hershey's Kisses
  • 6-ounce glass orange juice
  • 18 Rold Gold Tiny Twists pretzels
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn
  • 1 ounce string cheese

250 calories:

  • 6-ounce baked potato with 3 tablespoons sour cream and 1 tablespoon chopped chives
  • 1 McDonald's small french fries (More: The Healthiest Fast Food Breakfast Orders)
  • 1 cup Cheerios and 1 cup sliced strawberries in 8 ounces skim or unsweetened soy milk
  • 1/2 cup hummus and 12 baby carrots
  • 1 slice Pizza Hut medium hand-tossed style pepperoni pizza
  • 1 cup Haagen-Dazs Orchard Peach sorbet

400 calories

  • 1 Taco Bell Beef Chalupa Supreme
  • 1 serving (9 ounces) Amy's macaroni and cheese
  • 1 Wendy's Caesar Chicken Salad with croutons and Caesar dressing
  • 1 Subway 6-inch turkey breast sandwich on a wheat roll with turkey, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • 3 pancakes with 2 tablespoons maple syrup and 1/2 cup fresh blueberries (Like pancakes? Then try this protein-packed recipe!)
  • 1 Starbucks Grande Mocha Frappuccino (no whipped cream)
  • 1 cup spaghetti with 1/2 cup marinara sauce
  • 4-ounce piece cheesecake with 3 tablespoons whipped cream

The Best Foods to Eat...

...when you're starving

These fiber-rich foods satisfy and fill you up:

  • Tabouli (5g fiber, 160 calories per 1/2 cup)
  • Broccoli (5.1g fiber, 55 calories per 1 cup, cooked)
  • Raspberries (8g fiber, 64 calories per cup)
  • Artichokes (6.5g fiber, 60 calories per artichoke)

...to cure carb, fat, and sweet cravings

  • Angel food cake (0.15g fat, 128 calories per slice) with fresh sliced mango
  • Couscous (0.25g fat, 176 calories per cup, cooked)
  • Veggie burgers (3.5g fat, 90 to 100 calories per Boca or Gardenburger)
  • Medium baked sweet potato (0.15g fat, 103 calories)

...before dinner

Start with these, and you'll eat a smaller meal—but feel just as full:

  • Strawberries (46 calories per cup)
  • Gazpacho (46 calories per cup)
  • Baby spinach salad with 2 cups baby spinach and 2 tablespoons light dressing (36 calories)
  • 5 to 10 baby carrots with 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt ranch dip (109 calories)

Sources: